Advice on how to write an academic report and tips to make your next report stand out.


Academic report

What is a report and how does it differ from writing an essay? Reports are concise and have a formal structure. They are often used to communicate the results or findings of a project.

Essays, by contrast, are often used to show a tutor what you think about a topic. They are discursive and the structure can be left to the discretion of the writer.

Who and what is the report for?


Before you write a report, you need to be clear about who you are writing the report and why the report has been commissioned.

Keep the audience in mind as you write your report, think about what they need to know. For example, the report could be for:
  • the general public
  • academic staff
  • senior management
  • a customer/client.
Reports are usually assessed on content, structure, layout, language, and references. You should consider the focus of your report, for example:
  • Are you reporting on an experiment?
  • Is the purpose to provide background information?
  • Should you be making recommendations for action?

Language of report writing


Reports use clear and concise language, which can differ considerably from essay writing.

They are often broken down into sections, which each have their own headings and sub-headings. These sections may include bullet points or numbering as well as more structured sentences. Paragraphs are usually shorter in a report than in an essay.

Both essays and reports are examples of academic writing. You are expected to use grammatically correct sentence structure, vocabulary, and punctuation.

Academic writing is formal so you should avoid using apostrophes and contractions such as “it’s” and "couldn't". Instead, use “it is” and “could not”.

Structure and organization


Reports are much more structured than essays. They are divided into sections and sub-sections that are formatted using bullet points or numbering.

Report structures do vary among disciplines, but the most common structures include the following:

Title page


The title page needs to be informative and descriptive, concisely stating the topic of the report.

Abstract (or Executive Summary in business reports)


The abstract is a brief summary of the context, methods, findings, and conclusions of the report. It is intended to give the reader an overview of the report before they continue reading, so it is a good idea to write this section last.

An executive summary should outline the key problem and objectives, and then cover the main findings and key recommendations.

Table of contents


Readers will use this table of contents to identify which sections are most relevant to them. You must make sure your contents page correctly represents the structure of your report.

Introduction


In your introduction you should include information about the background to your research, and what its aims and objectives are. You can also refer to the literature in this section; reporting what is already known about your question/topic, and if there are any gaps. Some reports are also expected to include a section called ‘Terms of references’, where you identify who asked for the report, what it covers, and what its limitations are.

Methodology


If your report involved research activity, you should state what that was, for example, you may have interviewed clients, organized some focus groups, or done a literature review. The methodology section should provide an accurate description of the material and procedures used so that others could replicate the experiment you conducted.

Results/findings


The results/findings section should be an objective summary of your findings, which can use tables, graphs, or figures to describe the most important results and trends. You do not need to attempt to provide reasons for your results (this will happen in the discussion section).

Discussion


In the discussion you are expected to critically evaluate your findings. You may need to re-state what your report was aiming to prove and whether this has been achieved. You should also assess the accuracy and significance of your findings, and show how it fits in the context of previous research.

Conclusion/recommendations


Your conclusion should summarise the outcomes of your report and make suggestions for further research or action to be taken. You may also need to include a list of specific recommendations as a result of your study.

References


The references are a list of any sources you have used in your report. Your report should use the standard referencing style preferred by your school or department eg Harvard, Numeric, OSCOLA etc.

Concluding Thoughts: Tips To Make Your Next Report Stand Out


#1 – Determine its purpose


Before you do anything else, clearly define what your report should accomplish. Are you writing this report to persuade or inform? Will it project into the future or review the past?

If you were assigned this report, discuss its aim with the person who put you in charge. Don’t proceed until you fully understand why you’re doing what you’re doing because everything else flows from that.

#2 – Write to your readers


This is really closely related to the first tip. You can’t write to your readers if you don’t know who they are. Are they experienced or inexperienced? Insiders or outsiders?

Don’t use words, including jargon, that they won’t understand. Provide supplemental information at the end of the report if it will help. Resist the temptation to tout your horn too loudly – your report should do that for you.

Keep your audience at the top of your mind throughout the rest of this process. You’ll look your best by looking out for your readers.

#3 – Proceed in an orderly manner


Now that you know why you’re writing the report, and to whom you’re reporting, you can begin doing your research. Once you’ve gathered all the information you need, you’re ready to start writing.

When you’ve finished writing everything else, you’re ready to write your executive summary – the last thing you write will likely be the first thing your audience reads.

#4 – Length matters


Your report should be long enough to accomplish its purpose, but not a single word longer. Anticipate questions and objections and provide responses.

Don’t feel the need to fill space. Don’t be redundant. Communicate effectively – end of story!

#5 – Flow logically


It may sound silly, but some people forget this simple rule – your report should have an introduction, the body, and a conclusion.

It should flow easily from point-to-point. Lead the reader through a logical progression of the topic from beginning to end. Your first point should naturally flow into the second and so on.

#6 – Appearance matters


Your report should be visually appealing. Your readers should get a sense of what you’re saying just by scanning it. Be liberal in your use of headers and sub-headers.

Use color if your budget permits. Present large amounts of data graphically – in a chart, a graph, a table, or some other illustration. Call out important points. Be creative, but make sure it doesn’t interfere with your message.

#7 – Review and revise


Once you’ve written everything, including the Executive Summary, you’re ready to review and revise your document. You should do this once and then put it away, at least overnight.

When you come back to it, review and revise it again. Then put it away. Read through it at least one more time. You should also try to get someone else to review it for you. A fresh set of eyes will often catch mistakes that you won’t.
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